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Minority firms: Show us contracts

The Chamber of Commerce asked how to help. It got answers.

By PAUL SWIDER
Published March 4, 2007


LARGO - Wednesday's business visioning summit began with participants asking polite questions about how the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce could help minority business grow, but the conversation eventually came down to cash.

"We hear about programs and money, but where is the money? Who has the money? Who is receiving the money?" asked Catherine Weaver, president of the Sixteenth Street Business Association and owner of Uniquely Original Art Gallery.

The money is out there, participants learned, but history makes it hard for minority businesses to access the contracts.

The chamber held the summit to chart a course for incorporating more minority-owned businesses into the larger business world. It is part of the chamber's quality-of-life agenda that addresses business along with issues of affordable housing, minority participation, even poverty, said John Long, chamber president and CEO.

But getting established businesses to help minority counterparts is not easy, according to Malik Ali, who heads the Florida Minority Supplier Development Council. Large companies that create programs to do business with minority companies find they save far more than they spend and create a healthier community in the process, Ali said.

Ali said he ran a minority business program with Disney for eight years. His budget was $1-million, but he saved the company $2.5-million by finding eager minority contractors. He tells this story to corporate members of the council he runs, but even hard money numbers fall on deaf ears.

"They don't believe it," Ali said.

"There are millions of dollars of business in the local community, but only 1 percent goes to minority businesses," he said. "That's why the African-American community looks the way it does."

Ali said traditional chamber programs like seminars and training don't mean anything if a minority business can't get contracts. His council works to make those connections.

Benjamin Ellis Sr. jumped into the freewheeling summit conversation to support Ali. He said the council helped his company, Ellis and Ellis Associates, get a foot in the door with Progress Energy. He got work through the Progress minority business program, a rarity in the city, according to Ali.

"Large companies tend to do business with other large companies," said Hudson Oliveira, who runs the "supplier diversity" program with Progress. He echoed Ali in saying the program saves money while helping the community.

Other topics came up during the summit coordinated by Collaborative Labs, a St. Petersburg College offshoot at its Largo EpiCenter facility. Eventually the 40-odd participants broke into groups and talked their way through making specific recommendations on how the chamber can include more minority businesses.

Access to contracts was the common thread through many of the group's suggestions. The chamber's request for three main ideas included fostering better relations between members to encourage business, re-establishing a mentoring program, and identifying sources of capital from conventional loans to joint partnerships.

"We talk about moving into the 21st century," said Herman Lessard Jr., the chairman of the chamber's minority business solutions committee. "But we need a road map."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.